Ed Kugler: Instilling Organic Goals in Today’s Youth
Feb 26, 2013 10:47AM
● By Wendy L. Cullitan
Organically grown food has become increasingly popular as more people think about the food they eat and how it affects their overall health. This is evident from the growing number of farmers’ markets found in many cities and suburbs—some even year-round—where people flock to get a taste of locally grown food, free of pesticides and other harmful additives. Highland Park’s Ed Kugler has been concerned about the issue of food consumption and the planet for more than 40 years, and started his own garden in 2009.
“My concern with the environment fundamentally changed in college, when I didn’t want to contribute to the synthetic and chemical world of eating,” says Kugler. “Many people who are now more interested in sustaining our planet’s health have referred to me as a man before my time. Right now, my integrity and my passion in life is to share the knowledge I have gained over my lifetime to those who will listen.”
Throughout his career, Kugler has educated people by giving away organic food at local and regional events. In 1990, he launched his annual Taste-A-Thons, his way of marketing organics to consumers. He says, “My motto is, ‘Taste before you buy.’” Over the last five years, more than 50,000 consumers annually have been exposed to the natural and organic products that Kugler supports at green festivals in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles, plus farmers' markets along the North Shore. This year, he hopes to expand to other cities and include vegetarian and gluten-free festivals.
When Kugler’s children were young, he wanted to raise their awareness about how their choices affected the planet, so he introduced this idea to their elementary, middle and high schools in Highland Park by bringing food samples to school and talking about the importance of making healthy food choices. “The kids discovered that organic carrots tasted much better than regular ones,” he states.
Once his children were grown, he teamed with Highland Park High School (HPHS) Advanced Placement (AP) science teachers Christine and Howie Hill, who embraced the idea of enhancing their students’ studies via organic gardening. “We wanted to give students an idea of what they could do at home to lessen their carbon footprint and to make them aware of ways that they can eat more sustainably,” comments Christine, a teacher at HPHS for 19 years.
“Many students in urban and suburban areas aren’t exposed to how food is grown and how they can grow food easily, locally, cheaply and without pesticides and herbicides, and without genetically modified plants. At HPHS, they see and learn about rain gardens, native plant landscaping and various gardening techniques such as composting using earthworms. Mr. Kugler also comes into our school and brings heirloom seeds for students to plant and take home,” adds Howie. “He has turned his backyard into an organic farm, and it is simply amazing for our students to observe.”
After working for Kugler last summer, Danielle Mayber, currently a sophomore at North Carolina State University, realized that organic gardening takes a lot of commitment and monitoring. “Because we do not use harsh chemicals, weeding becomes the most important activity, and it is very time-consuming,” says Mayber. “The most memorable part of gardening in terms of sustainability is that no soil goes unused. Once a garden bed is planted, that soil is transferred into a new garden bed, so it can be used over and over again. Though most people may not know it, soil is a valuable resource. Ed’s backyard is like a classroom for students interested in learning about sustainability and organics.”
“Our overall goal is to open the minds of students to becoming sustainably responsible,” says Kugler. “We try to stimulate their curiosity by showing them our garden and allowing them to taste the vegetables, such as broccoli, tomatoes, and ground cherries. Each time a class visits our garden, the students are amazed by the freshness and the taste of the produce. We feel it gives the students a "Gardening 101" style class, with an emphasis on recycling, compost, spin farming, and gardening tips. Hopefully, we have initiated an understanding and awareness that can be sustainable anywhere.”
Christine Hill adds, “We want our students to learn ways that they can reduce their carbon footprint and see a real life example of how one man has accomplished that in his own suburban home. Ed has become a partner in the education of our students. He is a link between the school and the community. Our students are very interested in the unique concept of urban agriculture that he has brought to life for them, and we are so grateful for the opportunity he has provided in showing them practical ways they can live more sustainably.”
“I have continued to live this organic vegetarian lifestyle as much as possible for over 40 years,” summarizes Kugler. “I made a personal commitment to help save our planet’s water, air and soil. One thing that is still on my list of things to do is to help procure locally grown, organic food to schools, in order to bring this way of thinking and eating into students’ everyday life.”
Editor’s Note: Find Kugler’s products at OrganicFoodClub.com and at his Taste-A-Thons, where he provides samples and products for purchase.
Local Farm to School Programs
While only a handful of schools in the city and suburbs have official local food procurement programs, many resources are available to learn more about introducing farm fresh produce to a school, educating students about organic farming and caring for the planet. Some great resources include:
Academy of Global Citizenship (AGCChicago.org) is a Chicago school dedicated to teaching youth about their global impact on the community by learning in the natural world and becoming aware of how everyday choices impact their communities and the world at large.
City Farm (CityFarmChicago.org) operates a farm and farm stand between Chicago’s low-income Cabrini Green neighborhood and its upper-end Gold Coast, and always welcomes people to “help them grow.”
FamilyFarmed.org (FamilyFarmed.org) has a wide range of programs, from working with family farmers and local and national organizations that serve farmers to educating the public about eating locally grown food and supporting farmers.
Farm to School Illinois (FarmToSchool.org) is designed to connect K-12 students and local farms with the goal of serving healthy meals to improve students’ nutrition and educate them about agriculture, as well as to support local and regional farms.
Green Youth (ChicagoBotanic.org/GreenYouthFarm) Farm employs high school students on its organic farms and sells produce at several markets, including the market at the Chicago Botanic.
Prairie Crossing Farm-to-Table Lunch Program (PrairieCrossingCharterSchool.org) is an award-winning farm-to-table lunch program established by this charter school to enhance the school’s focus on the environment. It teaches students about making healthy food choices and encourages a deeper sense of community.